Sachin Pilot, India’s minister for computers and telecommunications, speaks during the World Economic Forum’s India Economic Summit in New Delhi, India, on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2010. About 800 company executives and investors are attending the annual event in the nation’s capital, organized by the World Economic Forum. (Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg)

‘Fragile’ Modi Set to Lose Polls, Indian Opposition Leader Says

(Bloomberg) -- The opposition leader who delivered the biggest blow to Narendra Modi’s ruling party in five years has vowed to replicate recent state-level victories in India’s upcoming general poll.

India’s main opposition Congress party scored its biggest win yet against Modi when it turfed his Bharatiya Janata Party from three state governments in December elections.

Congress lawmaker and Wharton alumni Sachin Pilot, who’s now deputy chief minister of Rajasthan, said the opposition had proved Modi’s position is "fragile" as he outlined the Congress party’s strategy ahead of the 2019 polls.

The ruling BJP has tried to separate the national contest from its defeat in recent state elections, Pilot said, but the opposition’s momentum is forcing the ruling party to resort to populist policies.

"The BJP leadership can’t distance itself and say, ‘Those are state polls, but now we have a different narrative,’" Pilot said in a Jan. 13 interview. "People, I think, have made up their minds. And the united opposition is very well placed to replace Mr. Modi."

Modi’s party is favored to win re-election but has slipped in the polls over the course of its five-year term.

Election strategy

Pilot took charge of his party’s Rajasthan presence roughly five years ago, when the party had just 21 seats in the state’s 200-member assembly. He said he concentrated on grassroots village-level politics and by-elections that helped build momentum for the state election victory.

He said his party’s national election strategy will highlight Modi’s failure to fulfill campaign pledges. It will also focus on farmers, youth unemployment and highlight the "over-centralization of power" in Modi’s office, he said.

"You have to make them accountable," he said.

The BJP’s defeats will have "no bearing" on the federal election, said lawmaker and party spokesman G.V.L. Narasimha Rao. The Congress party’s failure to secure big, decisive majorities in the Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh elections shows "Pilot’s failure and Congress’s failure," he added.

Political Coalitions

Pilot said Congress was winning allies while the BJP was losing them. And although a recent alliance between two powerful regional parties left Congress on the sidelines, Pilot said the development was still positive for those opposing Modi.

"One thing we do know is that neither of them is willing to touch the BJP with a barge pole, so the anti-BJP strength is gaining anyway," Pilot said.

Farm Loans

Pilot said the Congress party’s decision to write-off farm loans there and in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh -- where the party also formed governments in December -- would be repeated if they win the national elections due by May.

"Financial assistance will be given to those who need it," he said, adding his government in Rajasthan is trying to implement other farmer-friendly policies to boost food processing, cold storage and encourage cash crop farming. "Loan waivers by themselves are not the only solution. They are a starting point."

Economy

The country’s economic growth under Modi has not generated employment for the one million youth who join the labor pool each month, he said.

"You don’t see people getting jobs, you don’t see factory owners having three shifts instead of two shifts," Pilot said, noting Congress would focus on employment generation in the service sector. "Our policies will be ones that accentuate growth without compromising our social sector spending."

Religious Tensions

Pilot said the BJP’s Hindu nationalist policies have encouraged religious division, so-called cow vigilantes who attack Muslims and political instability, but are nonetheless "failing to cut ice" with the electorate. The BJP has denied its tenure has seen unusually high levels of violence.

"If there are cow vigilantes running around, if there are communal tensions, then investments don’t come," he said, adding the absence of a large-scale, violent religious riot isn’t proof Modi has been more moderate than some had feared. "Just because there has been no catastrophic event that has shaken the world, it doesn’t mean that death by paper cuts isn’t happening."

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